“Is that a bad guy?” asked my 4-year-old son, Theo, as we were taking a stroll near Prospect Park one fall weekend, pointing at a black cyclist who’d stopped to take a water break.
Admittedly, my wife, Meredith, and I had been ogling the man in question. With his wraparound mirrored sunglasses, the unhitched helmet perched jauntily on his head like a fedora, his lean, ripped torso covered in ink and glistening sweat, and the fitted black-and-blue bike shorts accentuating his muscular legs, it was nearly impossible even for two middle-aged lesbians to avert their eyes — he was Idris Elba–level gorgeous.
But our son’s question yanked us out of our reverie and plunged us into a state of despair. Was Theo asking because the man’s otherworldly presence made him appear like someone out of a comic book? Or was he asking because the man was black? (I recognize these are not mutually exclusive questions.)
I was terrified it was the latter — in part because we are both white parents of a black son. And while it is plenty disturbing to hear any child racially profile a stranger, to hear a little black boy ask if a black man is a “bad guy,” well, that dredges up a whole other set of devastating issues. Meredith and I are progressive and gay, living in a liberal enclave. We strive to instill in our son confidence and pride, and we’re doing our best to shield him from racism, to the extent that any parent of a black child can. But I worry constantly that we are failing him, not exposing him enough to black culture or ensuring he’s not the only brown face in the room. Were we watching our failure manifest?
I recognize how insidious white supremacy is — but is it so insidious that it’s crept into his innocent 4-year-old mind? Was he internalizing the news we were reading every day that summer — horrific incidents of black teenagers being terrorized at pool parties and in classrooms, unarmed black men and women being killed by police for traffic violations, black parishioners being massacred in their church?
Maybe I was being paranoid or overzealous, but better to be paranoid than to be deluded into thinking our son was impermeable to racism, because we ourselves must lie somewhere along the racist continuum. I’ll admit there was a time before Meredith and I became Theo’s parents when we mistakenly believed that, as lesbians, we could appreciate what it was like to live on the margins, and that it somehow granted us a level of immunity. But as white and privileged Americans, no matter how enlightened we think we are, racism is ingrained in us all.
Consider how easily and early on ideas about race get rooted in our minds: White children rarely own, let alone play with, black dolls. Or read books and watch TV shows featuring black characters. White children are more often than not enrolled in schools that are not only racially, but economically segregated; if the school is integrated, the classrooms and curriculum may not bear out that diversity.
In the infamous Clark doll experiments of 1939, a black social-scientist couple asked black children between the ages of 6 and 9 to choose between two dolls that appeared the same except for their skin color. The kids preferred the white doll — not surprising, considering this was the Jim Crow era (indeed this evidence helped to make the case to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education). But as recently as 2009, right after President Obama’s inauguration, the experiment was revisited, and black children still often favored the white doll, despite the many hard-won victories of the civil-rights movement.
So what do Meredith and I do about the fact that our child might be exhibiting signs of racial inferiority? We needed to start by answering Theo’s question — and reminding ourselves that “bad guy” was a new term for Theo.
“Sweetie, he’s not a bad guy. He’s a bike rider,” I said. “Like him,” directing his attention to a white guy in a similarly ostentatious cycling getup.
“Do you know what a ‘bad guy’ is?” Meredith asked. He shook his head no.
We weren’t surprised. Theo’s favorite books and TV shows — Frog and Toad, Curious George, Dinosaur Train — are about family and friendship, with no real antagonists. So where was this coming from? “We play bad guys at school,” he said, describing a taglike game. He said he played a good guy.
I recalled the games we played as kids in the 1970s and ’80s, and cringed: Cops and robbers. Cowboys and Indians. This was just another iteration. Here we were being given an opportunity to offer our child a more nuanced definition of “bad guy.”
We just had to figure out the right approach. First, though, I wanted a clearer sense of what started this conversation. I spoke with his teachers, who are Latino and black, and similarly concerned because not only had some of the kids become fixated on bad guys, but also on cops and jail. During drop-off, I’d observed Theo’s pals building prisons with Magna-Tile and wooden blocks, incarcerating action figures and baby dolls for their misbehavior.
The teachers identified the source: comic-book superheroes and sci-fi movies, from The Avengers to Star Wars. The kids had only a rudimentary grasp of the story lines, and some of the ideas had gotten lost in translation. The teachers were eager to steer their attention away from the bad guy–good guy dichotomy, and focus instead on superhero powers. Which Theo and his classmates liked, but the Darth Vader obsession persisted.
Kat Aaron, a white married mother of a white 4-year-old son, Odys (one of Theo’s friends), told me he asked her if jail and bad guys were real. “I’ve told him, ‘There are people who do good things and people who do bad things. And there are people who make mistakes and do bad things and sometimes people we think are bad guys can do good things.’ It’s confusing for them, but I think it’s confusing for adults too.”
I recognized that bad guys and jail were linked in Theo’s mind. I didn’t want to confuse him, so I had to find a way to keep my definition clear, simple, and honest — but the more I thought about what the term signified, the more I got lost in the weeds. How were we to explain that George Zimmerman convinced a jury that he believed an unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was a bad guy to justify killing him, and now he is walking free? That a number of unarmed black men and women have been presumed to be “bad guys” and killed by cops, most of whom were acquitted? That white college swimmer Brock Turner was sentenced to six months for raping an unconscious woman while black college football player Corey Batey got 15 to 25 years for the same crime? Is Turner less of a bad guy than Batey?
So defining “bad guy” for our black son becomes extremely complicated because it’s bound together with one of the most difficult conversations we will have with him, and one we will revisit throughout his childhood. Are we ready to explain racism to our preschooler when we are still talking about racial identity?
“I’ve had this conversation with other black activist moms. You want very much for your child to be aware,” said Issa Mas, a black single mother who lives in Harlem with her 8-year-old son, also named Theo. “A lot of the activists believe you should talk to your children about what’s going on in the world. But I believe black children have a very short childhood and I’m not robbing him of his innocence, his childhood — because at 8 years old he needs to be a kid, he needs to play on the playground. He already came home from the slavery chapter at school, saying he felt bad because he was black, and I have to break that down and make sure that’s not his shame to carry.”
Which is not to say Mas has evaded his questions. “I told him what you’re dealing with is a series of choices — bad and good decisions. And the older he gets the more sophisticated his questions become, so you’ve got to tailor your answers to his questions. My son ruminates — you think you’ve given him an answer and that he’s fine with that. Then a couple of days or weeks later, he will come up with follow-up questions, so you know it’s been bouncing around his head and he’s dissecting it.”
Kirsten West Savali, a columnist at the Root who is black and raises her three young boys with her husband in Natchez, Mississippi, believes you can begin the conversation early without undermining your child’s confidence. “I think being proud and confident of blackness is linked to understanding racism. The framework of racism and privilege are already there. It’s important for them to know that they are enough even when the world tells them they’re not.”
Even if he’s the only black member of a white household? Savali said, “He’s growing up around white privilege, but he’s also growing up around genuinely kind white people. So you’re in a great position to explain whiteness to him as a system, not ‘all white people hate me.’ Because he knows that’s not true already.”
The responsibility of discussing racism and racial privilege with our children shouldn’t rest solely on parents of black children. Aaron recognizes this, and is addressing this in the way she and her husband raise their son. “Odys’s whiteness could probably allow him to operate under the illusion that a hard line between good guys and bad guys can create safety,” said Aaron. “Because realistically, most authority figures will put him into the ‘good guy’ group. But it’s important to fumble our way through this weird, awkward conversation about good guys and bad guys over and over, because that illusion comes at a very real cost, to people in our community, to people we love. We don’t want our son to think that just because something is good for him, that it’s necessarily good.”
This summer has made it clear that we have a lifetime of work ahead of us — even though we’re now pretty sure Theo asked about the cyclist because his fantastic appearance did resemble something out of a comic book. In early July, we took Theo to his first Black Lives Matter event, a silent march led by kids following an unrelenting week of police brutality.
On the walk to the park in Fort Greene, I revisited a question: Do you know what a bad guy is? He said, “It’s someone who shoots people.”
Okay, I thought. I suppose this is a good starting point.
“Well, that happened this week,” I said. “Police shot some innocent people. You’re going to hear the names Philando Castile, Alton Sterling — they were the men who were killed. And most important, you’re going to hear the phrase ‘black lives matter.’” He nodded.
I hate that I had to tell my 4-½-year-old something so terrifying, that I have to tell him to be wary of, yet deferential to, cops when I hear white parents telling their children to seek help from police if they’re in trouble. But as we approached the park, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of hope: So many families, white and black and brown and transracial, had come to have this conversation together with their children, with one another. Theo spotted many of his classmates and friends and they embraced and chased each other around and played. They might not yet have grasped what they were marching for, or what we parents were trying to discuss with them, but on some level each child could understand by being among their peers that they were not shouldering this burden alone.